Mikael Andéhn on the Meaning of Place, Capitalism and the Potential Limitations of Place Branding

Mikael Andéhn, researcher and lecturer at Royal Holloway University of London, in this interview takes a critical look at place branding and place marketing, elaborates on the meaning of place and how it is influenced by capitalism.

Mikael, do you remember the first time you heard about the idea of places as brands and the marketization of cities or regions? What (or who!) triggered your interest in the topic?

I had some excellent teachers as an undergraduate at the sociology department at Stockholm University and through them was expertly introduced to the works of the likes of Karl Marx, C. Wright Mills, and Jean Baudrillard. This prompted my interest in how various things are absorbed into a logic and aesthetic that would typically be associated to the world of commerce.

Far later, I think it was due to reading Ernest Mandels book “Late capitalism” on a whim, I was very much enamored by the idea that capitalism, as a historical process, operates in phases in which its principles gradually become more engrained and pervasive in all aspects of the social world.

I found that idea to apply quite readily to both the evolving understanding of places in general, as well as to any managerial intervention pertaining to the cultivation of that understanding to a specific end. Places, to me, are just one instance in which this greater process is particularly palpable.

As researcher and educator in the field of marketing, to your mind what is place marketing all about? And how does it differ from place branding?

 I have never thought of this distinction as particularly interesting. To me these two practices are both the outcome of the same process of marketization, or commodification, of place. Place marketing typically denotes the more practical side of it and place branding is more focused on the less tangible aspects of promotion.

To me the more interesting issue is how far these practices can be made to extend and what the implications of this ‘sprawl’ come to be.

How do you approach place branding in your research – which aspects do you find the most intriguing?

The nature of place as a symbol which is by nature relational, scalable and capable of housing meaning, and the inherent friction between place and space, and the wealth of philosophical touching points to ‘place’ and its many contingent concepts, provide a fecund context of exploring all manner of interesting issues.

I enjoy this potential for variety. The breadth of context in how the concept of place comes into play is also reflected in the variety of academic disciplines that engage with place in different ways, meaning that a scholar of place can readily contribute to not only marketing but geography, philosophy, psychology, architecture or anthropology as well. This is a welcome respite from the trend towards ever narrowing academic specialization, at the expense of more diverse interests, which I personally don’t care for.

Having been a visiting researcher at University of California, Berkeley – do you observe differences between the US and UK (Europe) with regards to how place branding is approached in theory (research) and practice?

I very much enjoyed my time at UC Berkeley, and I am forever grateful for having experienced that kind of academic environment and to the people that made my stay there possible. At the time I was visiting there was not much in terms of research directly oriented towards place branding going on at Haas.

Instead, what I took away from this visit was largely derived from the people in the marketing sections excellence in methodology and cutting-edge psychology research.

In my experience the US and Europe (the UK, Sweden and Finland is as far as my experience extends), have vastly different ideals as to what scholarly work constitutes in general.

As far as place branding goes, I think that the tone-setting work will emerge from institutions that value and reward high-level research. Unfortunately this means that a lot of European institutions, particularly in my native Sweden, are at a disadvantage, especially vis-à-vis institutions in the UK and the US.

Your PhD was on place-of-origin effects on brand equity. In a nutshell, what did you find out?

My dissertation had three key arguments. All three of these ideas follow a genealogy of thought that should probably be attributed to people who were inspired by Donald Hebb or Frederich Hayek. That is, they largely build on ideas that stem from the study of the psychology of memory.

First, that places can be understood as ‘fully mythological’ objects: they do not require any spatial correlate, nor do they have any objective properties. Or, as Terrence Deacon put it: “toponyms are signifiers for themselves”. As such they are always evoked in context and from the vantage point of a ‘spectator’, for lack of a better word.

Second, since they are typically evoked in some context, it is less meaningful to evaluate places without taking heed of in what capacity the place is evoked.

In terms of origin effects, or provenance associations, this would mean looking closer at contingent place images such as ‘Germany-automobiles’, ‘Germany-fashion’ or ‘Germany-as-a-destination’, to put it simply.

Finally, any association that would render such a place-object contingency, and particularly any judgement and/or decision making derived from such an association, would be affected by how strong the association between place and object is in the first place.

Which major trends are likely to influence the work of country and destination branding professionals in the years ahead?

In my assessment two related issues are at the forefront in relevance for both branding professionals and scholars with an interest in places: the deepening marketization truly maturing into what Mark Fisher called “capitalist realism”. This being generally accepted as an accurate account of reality as such, and inequalities, and loss of authenticity, indeed alienation, that follows in the wake of this process.

For marketing practitioners I think they will find themselves increasingly at a loss as how to convey a sense of authenticity to their target audiences who will grow simultaneously more desensitized to marketing whilst also becoming more and more fed up with traditional means of influencing them, as well as being increasingly prone to subverting any meaning served up to them for commercial purposes.

This is nothing new, but I stand by that this is one of the key social transformations of our time as it pertains to marketing specifically.

Which topics linked to place branding and -marketing should receive more attention in future research, in your view?

I think we need to keep a close eye on the implications of place branding in the context of citizenship, i.e. the right to a place, the meaning of citizenship, and the ownership of the meaning of a place.

Place branding risks becoming (or staying rather) little more than a tool for market interests, which ultimately serve financial flows, that is capital itself, if we cannot somehow figure out how to make the incredible power of capitalism work in favor of preserving authenticity and citizenship, to truly make those things ‘valuable’ to preserve, cultivate, and keep accessible.

That would certainly be worthwhile in my opinion, although I must admit it is not easy to stay optimistic enough to consider this a real possibility. These doubts aside, these are some of the questions I am engaging in at the present time.

Thank you, Mikael.

Connect with Mikael on LinkedIn or visit him on ResearchGate or Google Scholar.

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